Episode 273: Science and The Leader-Follower Relationship

Episode Summary

While leaders have to be held accountable for their relationship with the people underneath them, both leaders and followers are responsible for the quality of the relationship they develop. Leaders’ goal should be to build a solid relationship with the staff members, where there is space to offer feedback without fear of being reprimanded. As long as the employee is not the destructive kind, if they are treated fairly, well remunerated, and not verbally abused by the manager, they’ll respond in the best of ways. Productivity and happiness will increase, stress and bad experiences will go down, and the work environment will be healthier. 


Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners wherever you may be in the world. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger. And we are so excited to have the guest that we have with us today, and you’ll see why in just a moment. She is the president of Situation Management Systems, a leadership training consultancy that is focused on helping people be authentic and successful when working with others. So, welcome, Sherri Malouf.

Sherri Malouf: Thank you very much, Steve. It’s great to be here.

Steve Shallenberger: All right. Now, before we get started, I’d like to tell you just a little bit more about Sherri. She holds a Ph.D. in Human Development from Fielding Graduate University, which is an awesome university and how do you say that, is that an MPhil?

Sherri Malouf: MPhil.

Steve Shallenberger: Tell us about that. What is that? It’s a master’s in philosophy or? 

Sherri Malouf: Yeah. Master’s in Philosophy and in Management Research from the University of Bath. 

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, well, that is exciting. Well, that’s a potent combination right there, Philosophy and Human Development. Science and the Leader-Follower Relationship is based on her research thesis, and decades studying the relationship between leaders and followers. And I think in all of the hundreds of podcasts that we’ve done, we’ve never really talked about these dynamics, specifically, so this is going to be great. Then, in addition, she has worked for over 30 years globally in topics such as influence, negotiation, and conflict management. So, to get us kicked off today, Sherri, tell us about your background, especially turning points or anything that’s had a significant impact, that helped you be where you are today.

Sherri Malouf: I looked at your question when I first got your write-up about what we were going to talk about and I was thinking about it, and there are so many turning points, Steven. It’s like, life is just full of turning points. And I originally was going to be an artist. When I was a teenager, I loved to draw. I was also a philosopher at that point, I was doing a lot of reading. But I was told during high school that I had a block against math. I thought, “Well, I know I can be creative, but what’s this logical, rational piece?” So, actually, my bachelor’s degree is in economics and law because I thought that’s going to really push me.

Steve Shallenberger: Wow. 

Sherri Malouf: That’s going to push the logical side of me. And through that, I was able to do some research and found out that I really liked it, and I did my MPhil. And they had recommended, I mean, basically, in Britain, you can do a master’s degree, it takes about a year, and it’s Masters of Science, and you sit in lecture halls and that kind of thing. Or you can do this MPhil, which is completely by research, and I just so enjoyed that, that I thought I’m going to do that. And so basically, I wrote a thesis for my master’s degree, which took me two or three years to do. There were no courses, it was just writing this whole thing. And I did my research in Rowntree Mackintosh, so chocolate. Another thing that’s near and dear to my heart. I realized that there are ways that you can grow and change and evolve and create the kind of thinking that you want to think, that you want to develop for yourself. And so, there’s a 25-year gap between my master’s and my Ph.D. It just took me a little time to get around to it again.

Steve Shallenberger: Well, that’s inspiring in itself. Way to go Sherri.

Sherri Malouf: Thank you. And one of the things that would happen is I’d be sitting and looking out the window and my husband of 25 years, Shawn would come in and look at me and go “Working hard, I can see.” And I’m like “I am. I’m thinking.” And I actually really put together some very complex stuff during my Ph.D. And that thinking was a lot of fun to do because one of the things that they say about women is that we’re able to really bring a lot of disparate things together, to see the interconnections of things. And one of my professors on my committee said that I never met a theory that I didn’t like. And he’s the one that kept feeding me new stuff. He’d go, “Oh, look at this or look at this.” And I’m like, “Ah, geez. Now I’ve got to figure out how to fit that in.” But the more you read, the more you look at things, the more you realize you don’t know.

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, I’ll say that’s the truth. Well, you have a new book coming out as well. Tell us about that, Science and the Leader-Follower Relationship. What led to that and tell us a little about the book?

Sherri Malouf: Well, my intention with the Ph.D. was to write a book. After my MPhil, the external examiner – I don’t know who it was, they keep them in the dark – the external examiner said I should publish academically. And I just had done enough writing at that point, I was like, “No, I’m not going to do that.” And so, with this one, I thought, I’m going to write a book. And it’s not a straight path or it wasn’t for me doing my Ph.D. I knew I wanted to do something around influence, but then I was like, “Well, maybe that’s not what it is.” And so, I was reading about neuroscience, I was reading about a bunch of different things. And it finally came that there was not a lot of work that was done on just focusing on that relationship between leaders and followers. And I thought, well, it’s such an abstract thing, relationship. What’s the science behind it? How can I make something that seems so elusive in some places, like organizations? How can I really take a look at the science and help people understand the critical importance of this relationship?

Steve Shallenberger: Okay. Wow, okay. This is going to be fun, then. So, why do people leave their jobs? Sherri, what’s the number one reason?

Sherri Malouf: It all comes back to their relationship with their leader. I mean, most people will say they don’t feel recognized, they don’t feel appreciated, they don’t feel heard, they’re not kept in the loop on what’s going on. And of course, there’s the perception of incompetence or whatever in leadership. So, it still is the number one reason is people don’t leave a job, they leave a manager or a boss or a leader.

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, that’s interesting. And so, are you saying that if you have a good relationship with your leader, you’re more likely to stay with the company?

Sherri Malouf: Oh, yeah. Engagement goes up, satisfaction goes up, productivity goes up. I mean it’s just common sense, right? That if we have a good relationship with a person that has “positional power” over us, if that relationship has some good qualities to it, it’s a no-brainer that that’s going to be a satisfying job for somebody.

Steve Shallenberger: What have you found from your experience if let’s say that somebody has a company, and they have different divisions or offices and you have a leader in the office that has a style that’s pretty assertive, and it doesn’t always have the best impact on employees? Because some people don’t do very well with assertiveness. Have you found that?

Sherri Malouf: We teach a program called Positive Power and Influence. And asserting is one of the styles that we teach people how to do effectively. And if somebody’s doing it in a way where they’re just so focused on the task, and they don’t remember to take care of relationships, then they’re going to damage those relationships. There’s a balance beam there, right? There’s a way that you have to do both, you have to get stuff done and you’ve got to take care of relationships. Now, there are times when a leader needs to be able to make a decision, tell people what he or she wants, and have it happen without people getting upset about it. But that’s because that leader has invested in the relationship. So, that the relationship, if it’s a good relationship, it can handle a leader being assertive, as long as it’s done in a way that’s respectful, takes care of the relationship, all that kind of stuff. So, it’s more of how are you balancing these things out. How are you balancing getting things done with taking care of relationships?

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, yeah, that’s really an excellent thought. In other words, if there’s high trust, then when you need to be straightforward and say, “Listen, we’ve got, we need to fix this.”, it’s a lot easier to deal with that versus where it’s relentless and wears people out.

Sherri Malouf: Yeah, I mean, if you’ve got somebody who is a taskmaster, just flailing people, there’s a lot of psychological abuse out there. It’s not good. There are people who take that power and use it in terrible ways, and they just have to stop doing this.

Steve Shallenberger: How do you help somebody that may be doing that, Sherri?

Sherri Malouf: Well, there’s one particular person that I heard of in the last year with a company I was at, that I was working with and the problem is that person does a very good job of managing upward. And it’s a family-owned business – it’s pretty big business – and is in with the family and is a good performer. So, they’re a little bit blind to the flaws and they’re blind to the fact that they’re destroying their organization. They’re blind to it, they don’t see it, or they don’t want to see it. So, part of it is that leaders have to be held accountable for their relationships with the people underneath them. You’ve got to make these people accountable. If you hear rumblings coming up, you’ve got to be honest and let it through, but people are afraid to tell the truth.

Steve Shallenberger: Exactly. So, you have to create an environment where people can feel comfortable, and giving feedback, and tell the truth.

Sherri Malouf: Performance is one piece of the puzzle. But if you’ve got somebody who is doing that much damage, where people are miserable – I mean, we’re talking, this person was psychologically abusive to people. So, people are miserable. Yelling at people, all kinds of stuff. The people are miserable. They are beside themselves with how unhappy they are in their work environment.

Steve Shallenberger: Right. Yeah. Okay. All right. Well, I had a couple of other things I was thinking about. It sounds to me, like the principles that you’re talking about that apply in the workplace would apply at home?

Sherri Malouf: They do. So, I went through all this science to talk about the relationship and it kind of ends up coming back to common sense. But since common sense isn’t common, it’s good to have some science to back you up.

Steve Shallenberger: Yes, right.

Sherri Malouf: So, I created out of all the different sciences, so it was system science, neuroscience, relationship science, obviously social psychology, there’s a bunch of different things packed into this whole theory of mine. What came out very strongly is that we are socialized in particular ways and we have schemas in our minds. You’ve probably heard of implicit leaders theories and implicit follower theories where we have idealized images of what the ideal leader would look like and behave like, and the same is true for followers. So, we check off the box, if somebody has those attributes. We go, “Okay, so that person’s worth my time or this person isn’t.” And it’s all very unconscious, and it’s all very automatic. So, we don’t always stop and make a conscious choice about the people that we’re dealing with and how we’re dealing with them. So, when I developed the implicit social elements, these are things that people need in relationships, and it’s fairness, status, trust, empathy, reciprocity, mutual recognition, respect, and self-control. So, most of these are yes, they’re going to be relevant to any relationship in your life. I mean, the only one that may not be is status, but it depends on your cultural background because, for some cultures, status is critical. So yes, it applies to all relationships in your life, but I was wanting to look at this one where you’ve got this power differential, and how do you actually develop good relationships within the context of an organization. And an organization is a forced social environment, where we spend a great deal of our time with people that we can’t choose to be with. We just are doing a job and we have to somehow figure out how to get along with everybody.

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, well, thanks for that background. And that’s great, I’m glad you talked about the implicit social elements, these important foundations. There are quite a few leadership models out there and so why do many of them fail? What what’s your perspective on that?

Sherri Malouf: There’s a lot of good stuff in all these leadership models. I mean, there’s crazy good stuff out there. And you go back 100 years, and you’ll see that they all talk about the same things. You’ve got stuff to get done and you’ve got people. The problem is that nobody talked about how do you develop a relationship with people within the context of an organization and whatever power looks like within that organization. How do you create solid trusting relationships? What does it take? What’s needed? And if people had good relationships, this will complement all of those leadership models and help make them work. Because you can have a leader who’s doing whatever, authentic or transformational or emotionally intelligent, we’ve got so many different leadership models. You can have a leader doing all of that and you’ve just got crummy followers. Honest to goodness, you can have followers who are backstabbers, underminers. I mean, we don’t talk about it, right? We don’t talk about the really crappy followers that are out there, but they’re out there.

Steve Shallenberger: Nobody talks about that. Yeah, that’s funny. So, what actions should the followers, direct reports take to strengthen their relationship with their boss? What can they do? I mean, you got this kind of stuff, these undercurrents going on, but that doesn’t help them if they keep doing that. That’s a short-term outcome, right? 

Sherri Malouf: So, yes. There are followers who have been and are very destructive. But most people are not that way. But there are some simple things you can do. So for example, if we talk about reciprocity in the organization. So, reciprocity per follower – what a follower gets – is it gets a salary, gets benefits, gets interesting projects to work on, gets challenged. All of these things are what a follower gets out of working with a leader. So, what does the leader get? The leader gets status, the leader gets a reputation. So, if the leader is good, if your leader is good, talk to people about how good this leader is. We’re more than happy to talk about the negative stuff, we’re more than happy to be angry and talk about all of that stuff about how our leader just doesn’t listen or whatever. But if you have a good leader, talk them up around the organization. That builds that person’s reputation and status within the organization. So, that’s one thing is just really support your leader within the social network. The other thing is that if the relationship is at odds, you’ve got to create a plan, you’ve got to decide what you want. What do you want with this person? Why is there a problem in the relationship? What’s going on? You’ve got to get really clear about what you want to make happen and then you’ve got to create a plan. You’ve got to create an influence plan and decide, “Well, how do I need to connect with this person? What’s going on? Am I not getting enough time with them?” Because of COVID, we just don’t do these connections enough on Zoom or whatever. So again, you’ve got to really diagnose what’s going on and what do you want and what are you going to do about it. It’s just, it’s one of those things where you have to make a conscious choice because both the leader and the follower are equally responsible and accountable for the quality of the relationship.

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, I think what you’re talking about is so powerful because really, when you think about it, that the stakes are high for that relationship to go well. I mean these people – the followers, the direct reports – they want to be happy, they want to be successful, they want to grow, they want to make a difference, right? 

Sherri Malouf: Of course. 

Steve Shallenberger: Then so, they just can’t give up and blame people, just be angry, they need to take a stand and do something about it. I love what you’re saying on that. And so, how do you help them get into this frame of mind to create a positive plan to get things on track, and rather than blame to take control for the things they can control and get on a positive course? 

Sherri Malouf: Yeah. I mean, that’s basically what we teach in the Positive Power and Influence program. We teach people how to do all the different influence styles – because most people aren’t very flexible in their ability to influence and a lot of people don’t even know that there are different ways to influence – and then we teach them how to plan for critical situations. So, it’s about really understanding the impact that you have and taking responsibility for that impact. So, if there’s something going on with your boss, don’t blame your boss, look at what you’re doing, and what do you need to change. And so, I tell everybody, if you want to change something in a relationship with somebody, you can’t wait for them to change, you’ve got to make the change because we’re very habitual. Human beings, our brain operates in a way that’s very automatic. And part of that is because it requires so much energy to focus and pay attention and we have to conserve our energy. So, we’re happy to get into these little habitual things that we do with people. And so, then we grumble and go away and say, well, it didn’t work again. Well, it’s because you didn’t do anything different. So, I say to people, if you want a different outcome, walk in different, walk in with a different mindset, walk in with the possibility and the potential that you can create anything that you want in this moment. It is up to you.

Steve Shallenberger: Give us a few examples of the type of things they can do to do that.

Sherri Malouf: For example, if your boss is stressed out, listen, be empathic with your boss. One of the implicit social elements is empathy. Have empathy for your boss, your boss has a boss. Go in and just listen. Don’t judge just listen to what’s going on. Ask how you can help. What can you do differently? Ask for feedback or ideas about how you can make your boss’s life easier?

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah. So, what you’re saying, Sherri is that both parties have a responsibility to make this a great relationship. And it’s important that both are engaged and if one is having challenges or isn’t maybe up to the standards the other thinks, that’s still a responsibility, they have a responsibility to do everything they can to be successful. And that includes listening, for example. Being empathic, right? Taking the initiative. I’ve been thinking about this, and here are a few solutions. Okay, great advice. Now, let’s switch the tables here for a second, what actions should the manager take to strengthen their relationship with their direct reports?

Sherri Malouf: The first step that a leader, a manager, a boss needs to do is to look at their own biases that they have for and against people. Most people have their favorites. They don’t like to talk about it that way, but they have the people that they’re joking and laugh around with because the relationship comes easily with some people. And it’s usually people who are similar to you or have similar interests. But you’ve got to step back and look at what you’re doing. Because that kind of behavior actually creates a feeling of favoritism and a lack of fairness with the rest of the people that you don’t joke around with. So, one of the things to do is to step back and say, “What am I doing. Am I treating people equally? Have I made assumptions because this particular woman is very shy and introverted – or man – and they don’t say much, so they’re not much fun? I’m not going to engage with them that much.” Draw those people out, bring them in, talk to them; you’ll be amazed at a resource source that could potentially be fantastic, that you’re just skipping over. Part of it is just looking at yourself and look at your own biases for and against different people. Question those, challenge them in yourself, and then go out to the relationship and see if they get confirmed or that your assumptions are actually quite off, and that you’ve been judging people wrongly.

Steve Shallenberger: Right. Boy, that’s so powerful, isn’t it? In other words, to take time to really get to know all of your people, to get to know their story and once you know their story, then you can help bring out the best within them.

Sherri Malouf: Absolutely. I mean, one of the things that we teach people in the Influence program is every person requires something different from you. And most people are very routine, very habitual in how they influence people and they’ll treat everybody the same way. And that works for some people, but it doesn’t work for everybody. So, you’ve got to vary your style, you’ve got to really look at the person, what do you want from that person? Just think it through. How are you going to influence that person and have the impact you want to have?

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, good. Now, you may have touched on this already, Sherri, but what is the science behind the leader-follower relationships?

Sherri Malouf: Well, there are three chapters in my book devoted to science. The first one is on system science. And it’s important to understand how systems work within organizations, within yourself. And so, I kind of talk through the systems behind what we’re doing, and part of the system’s conversation is actually how our brain works. Obviously, our brain is a system as well. And so, neuroscience is really an interesting piece of it. So, there’s a whole chapter on the neuroscience behind it. And then relationship science and relationship science is about what are the attributes of close relationships and the leader-follower relationship, what I’m saying needs to be considered and thought of as a close relationship if it’s going to be successful.

Steve Shallenberger: Okay. You said there are three chapters, what’s the third one? Systems, relationships, is there another one? 

Sherri Malouf: Neuroscience. 

Steve Shallenberger: Oh, the neuroscience part, okay.

Sherri Malouf: There’s a whole chapter called brain science.

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, that’s a good one. And all of these things then impact the relationships between the boss and the follower, the direct reports. Okay.

Sherri Malouf: Yeah. So, the book walks you through how all of those different sciences relate. And there’s actually a narrative going through the whole book, there’s a story about Jim and Mr. Corbin and their relationship. So, I actually use that as a way of demonstrating the science. So, it’s very clear in terms of how this science plays into relationships. 

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, good. Well, I’m always stunned by how fast things go, and we’re at the end of the show. And so, if you had a manager sitting here and a direct report, and it could be a parent and a child, any of these relationships like this, what are the most important things that you could recommend to them, Sherri?

Sherri Malouf: Well, the biggest thing is to look to yourself first. If something’s not working, look to yourself. Get yourself grounded, get yourself balanced out, look at your heart, balance that with your head, figure out what you want. Then, you can look to the other person. But you always have to start with yourself.

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, that’s good. That’s great advice. And so, what’s the end game? How do you know you’re kind of at the right place? What are some of the signs?

Sherri Malouf: So, I asked a bunch of people after I finished my Ph.D., and I was writing my book, and I asked a bunch of people, I said, “What would be the impact on your organization if the relationships between leaders and followers were really healthy?” And they said, every single person said, “Well, we’d get more done, so we’d be more productive, we’d be a lot happier.” So, a lot less stress, and people would be engaged and excited to be working.

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, well, that’s a big impact. Well, it’s been fun visiting today. So, how can people find out about what you’re doing?

Sherri Malouf: Our website is – so situation, management, systems. You can find me on, I’m on LinkedIn and Twitter, and Facebook. So, we’re out there, you’ve just got to search for us.

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, well, it’s been great having you with us as a guest today. Sherri, we wish you the best as you’re making a difference in the world and helping relationships be stronger. We each have a responsibility in this. And to all of our listeners, it’s been a privilege having you join us and be with us throughout this discussion. Never forget, you too, are making a difference every single day in your life. This is Steve Shallenberger with Becoming Your Best, wishing you a great day.

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best
CEO, executive, corporate trainer, and community leader.

Sherri Malouf

Chair and Principal at Situation Management Systems Inc

Leading authority on leadership and execution, F-16 Fighter Pilot, and father

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